David Puttnam, the once-brilliant film-maker who is best known for producing the amazing movie of Khmer Rouge terror, “The Killing Fields” has stunned journalists, diplomats and others, by praising the current Cambodian government and its leader Hun Sen, for “its commitment to ending corruption.”
The current member of Britain’s House of Lords, speaking in one of the world’s most egregious kleptocratic states, then lectured the media “as just another arm of the opposition.”
He called on journalists to “develop a more constructive role as the government works to develop Cambodia.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere where I have received such an absolute answer from government on the issues of stopping and stamping out corruption,” Puttnam said of this state run by former Khmer Rouge luminaries that is infamous for indulging corruption, violent suppression of democracy and land seizures that benefit the Phnom Penh elite allied with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
“I find the commitment and determination here to confine it [corruption] and root it out is very real,” he said. “Now, in five years’ time I might be found to be a complete fool, but I don’t think I will be; I really don’t think I will be.”
Puttnam, who was recently appointed as the British Prime Minister’s trade envoy for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, was speaking at the British Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia on Thursday after attending a showing of “The Killing Fields” in front of Cambodian students, diplomats and a few reporters.
He told the journalists that “the challenge for the media is that you have to decide what your role is: is it to inflame or inform?”
Prime Minister Hun Sen had cancelled a scheduled meeting with Puttnam, but it was the film-maker who was contrite. “I received a very, very, very profound apology from Mr. Hun Sen, and I don’t feel remotely offended or put out,” he said, leaving some in the audience to wonder how he came to be an apologist for the regime, which has now been in power for almost 30 years.
What Lord Puttnam doesn’t understand is that Hun Sen, who defected from the Khmer Rouge to join the Vietnamese side in 1977, abhors any publicity for the Khmer Rouge at all, fearing that it would lead ordinary Cambodians once again to demand to know why they are still being ruled by some of the old murderous crowd. It was only reluctantly that Hun Sen agreed to a war crimes tribunal to look at Khmer Rouge atrocities which continues to drag on.
Continuing his lecture of the media, Puttnam, who said he was born during the Blitz on London in WWII, added, “It really does come down to how responsible the media is prepared to be, or does the media just become another arm of the opposition?”
Resident correspondents here know that Cambodia is regularly in the ranks of the worst human rights violators among members of the United Nations. Under Hun Sen’s harsh rule, attacks and assassinations have taken place, besides Hun Sen conducting a coup against the legitimate government of Prince Norodom Ranariddh in 1997, undermining the work the United Nations did to establish democracy.
In the most recent election last year, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party managed to gain 55 seats, not far short of the 68 seats for the CPP, which is just clinging on to power.
Just last month, Gareth Evans, the former Australian foreign minister, who played a key role in the political settlement that ended Cambodia’s civil war, called for sanctions against the CPP government, saying that it had been “getting away with murder.” He mentioned five garment workers killed last month for protesting against slave wages in textile factories.
Evans, who maintained a close friendship with Hun Sen’s government since the peace process of the 1980s and early 1990s, said he had lost hope that the CPP is interested in protecting human rights or liberal democracy in the country. He talked of a “pattern of strategic violence used by the government with international impunity.”
While preserving a democratic façade, Hun Sen has ruled, for all practical purposes, as an autocrat, showing scant regard for the right of free expression and association, and resorting to violence and repression whenever he has deemed it necessary to preserve his and his party’s position, Evans said.
Evans described as “plausible,” an accusation that more than 20 of Hun Sen’s closest associates have “each amassed more than US$1 billion each through misappropriation of state assets.”
During a meeting on Wednesday night with Cambodian film makers and others, Puttnam seemed to damn with faint praise Rithy Panh’s Oscar nominated “The Missing Picture,” which, though it didn’t take the recent Oscar for best film in a foreign language, nevertheless raised the prestige of Cambodian movies by being a finalist.
Puttnam, who made other brilliant films besides “The Killing Fields,” was much admired by me and many others in the past, but he has shown himself to be more than a little out of touch.
In making the original movie he relied on the advice of such journalists as the late Neil Davis, now he criticizes journalists, mainly young and struggling to report from here.
James Pringle worked as a correspondent in the Vietnam and Cambodia wars, and in Maoist China, for Reuters, Newsweek and the Times of London.